by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by safelybeds
It was a testament to his great panic and agitation that, upon having his Agency-managed alert system flare red and broadcast the words BABÁ DOWN directly into his brain, Alastair managed to wash his hands only three times before racing out the door of his apartment.
He tore down the city streets, ushering people clear whole blocks before their paths crossed, sending out a low-level out of my way vibe as best he could, and telekinetically nudging ones who didn’t know how to take a hint. More than a few of them grumbled at him and nearly all stared, something he would have gone out of his way to avoid under normal circumstances. These, however, were not normal circumstances. The distance between his apartment and his house, a leisurely twenty-minute walk on fine days, passed beneath the soles of his shoes in a quarter of that time, and he was grateful for perhaps the first time in his career that the Agency mandated both mental and physical health standards in all its agents as he tore through the revolving doors of the Agency’s main offices less than ten minutes after first hearing the alert. As his feet stepped on to the revolving platform, he telepathically communicated the elevator code, and thus, when he stepped out again, it was not just on the other side, but on the other side and sixty feet down.
He cast back the doors of the first office so forcefully that they nearly flew off their runners, and might have started tearing apart every feature of the architecture had Captain Guifride not placed herself bodily between him and the rest of the medical ward. She was half an inch shy of five feet proper, but she still knew how to make her presence felt, and Alastair stopped in his tracks, clenching his hands inside his gloves. “Where is Sebastião?” he demanded, gasping for breath.
She put up a hand, and he took a step back, rocking on the balls of his feet but generally stationary for the moment. “Agent dos Anjos is in critical but stable condition,” she said, emphasizing the more positive part of the news. She addressed him in crisp, nearly accentless German; as one of the highest-ranking officers in an organization of nearly three hundred agents with approximately two hundred native tongues among them, her hyperfacility with languages came in handy often. “Before we can let you see him, however, you must be briefed.”
Alastair grumbled and folded his arms across his chest to convey his displeasure, but he nodded and followed as she turned and led him down a nearby hall — not the one that led to his partner, but the one that terminated in a conference room blue-lit by the various maps and screens that circled the room. Guifride gestured to a seat at the end of the table, and Alastair took it, sitting with an artificial measure of calm. Someone had been kind enough to leave an unopened water bottle for him by his place, and though he wouldn’t drink it, some faint portion of his mind appreciated the consideration. He folded his hands in his lap and squared his shoulders back, trying to look the consummate professional he needed them to believe him to be.
“Agent Niemand,” said Captain Guifride, addressing him but speaking — in English now — to all dozen or so Agency employees that sat around the table, “as I said before, Agent dos Anjos has been stabilized, and his life is not in immediate danger. He has, however, sustained damage to the integrity of his mental architecture, and time is of the essence.”
A pinched-face man whose white lab coat identified him as ‘R. Baker, M.D.’ stood and gestured toward the screen behind him; a three-dimensional wireframe image of a brain floated into view, and Alastair recognized it on sight as Sebastião’s. “Approximately twenty minutes ago, while in the midst of a routine levitation training session with a group of cadets, Agent dos Anjos sustained a short-range blast from an as-yet-unidentified weapon designed, we believe, to disrupt regular psychic activity.” Dr. Baker gestured to the screen, and several areas lit up red. “Our scans at this time detect no signs of higher brain functions–”
Alastair felt his heart plunge into his stomach, and he drew his hands so tight he could feel the thin leather covering them begin to stretch and tear.
“–though we do see signs on the surface that indicate activity is likely going on beneath, unable to permeate the layer of damage caused by the device.” Dr. Baker pointed toward the middle of the screen, and a little white dot glowed, lonely as the last candle left on Christmas Eve. “We don’t, however, have a plan of approach–”
“You want me to dive. I’ll dive.” Alastair nodded and pushed back from the table, standing, and a general clatter and murmur followed. “It’s settled. Take me to him.”
“Please, Agent Niemand.” Captain Osueke, one of the Agency’s leading security officers, stood as he did, and she raised a slender hand to quiet both him and the room. “There are two things you need to consider before you accept this assignment.”
Alastair sighed, swallowing down his frustration. “You want to warn me it’s dangerous? It’s always dangerous.” He waved a hand in front of his face, dismissing concerns. “I heard, as-yet-unidentified weapon, attack, I know. I won’t know what I’ll find or what I’ll need to do. But you don’t have anyone else. And you need no one else. I’m going in.”
Osueke gave Guifride a sidelong glance, and Guifride shrugged. “That’s one. Two is that we believe that the attack itself did not go as planned. From cadet testimonies and what we can reconstruct from the scene, we believe that the attacker was in the process of orchestrating a larger strike, and that Agent dos Anjos surprised him before he could position himself effectively, in the process taking the brunt of the blast and saving all eighteen cadets from danger.” That, to Alastair, sounded perfectly in character for his crazy partner, always leaping before he looked, more courage than brains most days. “And,” Guifride continued, “we believe that larger attack to have been orchestrated and coordinated by a rogue psychic agency.”
If they expected a reaction, they got none; Alastair’s face remained plaster in its stillness, and the silence grew so uncomfortable that Osueke finally cleared her throat. “What we’re saying, Agent Niemand, is that you should be prepared for the situation to become increasingly complex as you go deeper. The potential for unseen traps and triggers is high, as is the possibility that Agent dos Anjos has limited to zero control over his own psyche.”
Dr. Baker nodded. “Initial estimates are that you may have as low as a thirteen percent chance of extraction. Self- extraction,” he clarified, fixing Alastair with a grim stare. “Given our limited understanding of Agent dos Anjos’ mental state, we expect chances of retrieving his consciousness are–”
Alastair shook his his head, cutting him off, and he started for the door. “Don’t give me numbers,” he snapped glancing back over his shoulder. “I’ve made it out every time before.”
“There’s a last time for everything,” said Guifride, and as she touched her fingertips to her temple, all the screens went blank.
His first thought on seeing Sebastião there in the hospital bed was of how pale he looked there, nearly the same white as the crisp sheets around him; it was almost like looking at the remains of a popped balloon, where one’s imagination could suppose what joy it had held before while seeing where none was left. Even his curly sun-kissed curls lay limp against the pillow, as though they too suffered from whatever psychological malaise left him comatose. He was still dressed in his own clothes, though his sleeve was scuffed and torn; Alastair wanted to take an impression from them, to brush the fabric’s recent past and reveal the history of what precisely had occurred, but there was no time.
Guifride and Dr. Baker were standing by his bedside, joined by a woman who introduced herself as Dr. Nguyen. “I’ll be monitoring your status the entire time,” she said, indicating the transparent blue Kirlian Window through which she would watch him work. “If I see you beginning to fade, I’ll take measures to pull you out.”
Alastair began to protest, but Guifride cut him off. “I won’t hear it. You agree to this or you don’t go in. End of story.”
With a grumble to let them know he didn’t approve of these restrictions, Alastair nodded. “Fine,” he said, “give me a moment.” He shut his eyes and took several deep breaths, redirecting a larger-than-normal percentage of his psychic energy to maintaining his aura; if things got difficult while he was in there, the projection might buy him at least a little longer before his superiors attempted extraction. It was a stupid, stupid risk, but unlike his superiors, Alastair knew this was not a time for caution.
Dr. Baker pulled up another model of Sebastião’s brain. “We see evidence that the damage is deep, and is progressing.” He traced a green pathway from the tip of the frontal lobe down nearly to the brain stem. “Multiple cognitive functions have already been suspended. Given the rate of decline, we suspect another three hours at the most before autonomic systems are critically impaired. If you’re still in there at that time….”
Alastair sighed and took a seat on the high stool he had been provided; his knees were at the level of the hospital bed. “Try not to tell me how to do my job,” he snapped, then paused and took another deep breath. “…My apologies. I am aware of the dangers. Thank you for the warning.”
“Please, Alastair,” said Guifride, slipping back in to German, and Alastair could tell from the blank looks on the doctors’ faces that she wasn’t bothering to maintain the psychic translation matrix that would make herself intelligible to the room. “I know you’re worried about Babá. We’re all worried about him; that’s why we’re all doing our best to help him. But at no time does that mean I’m going to stop worrying about you,” she added, giving him a slight jolt that was the mental equivalent of having someone snap a rubber band across the back of your hand.
“I’ll be careful,” he promised, and if he could have gotten away with crossing his fingers behind his back as he said it, he would have. The answer didn’t satisfy her, he could tell, but it pacified her enough that she backed off, nodding at him to begin.
Picture a door, he could hear Instructor O’Hara’s deep Irish accent say, and Alastair closed his eyes, doing just that. He folded his gloved hands one atop the other and placed them on the metal rail of the bedside; every other psychic in the Agency had to be in some sort of physical contact to dive, if they could dive at all, but Alastair could do it from a distance, and that was part of what made him the best. Alastair never touched anyone. Instead, he lifted a hand and traced a rectangle in the air blindly over the place where he remembered Sebastião’s head had been. The exact location was irrelevant, as this was a visualization exercise of sorts; the door was not for Sebastião, but for him.
He imagined turning its knob, and in the same moment felt his mind catch, in much the same way one someone might stumble when trying to pull open a door with confidence only to find the deadbolt thrown; he’d failed to take into account the shielding techniques that were driven so deep into the subconscious of every person in the Agency that they persisted even in the face of impending brain death. Shh, he told it, as much as anyone could tell a door anything. It’s only your partner. You recognize me. I have permission to be here. He emphatically did not, nor had he or Alastair ever had occasion to use full projections to venture in the other’s mind, but he was familiar enough that such a petition was at least confusing to the automatic defenses, and that gave him time enough to do the psychic equivalent of carding the lock. Sebastião’s shields shimmered for only a fraction of a second, but that was all Alastair needed; he slipped in, and felt them slam shut behind him.
Everyone’s head, as a rule, was different.
Alastair had done over two hundred dives, more than double the number of anyone else in the Agency, and he still could not predict how the first minutes inside someone else’s psyche would go. Sometimes he hit the ground running, like being tossed from a moving car. Sometimes the process was more gradual and disorienting, the same uphill struggle as between a 5:30 AM alarm and a jet-lagged brain. Sometimes it was so sudden and real, like entering a dream already in progress, that Alastair had to stop and remind himself that everything around him was a nothing more than a construct.
The outer layer of Sebastião’s psyche, however, came to his ears long before it reached any other part of his body, a slow, rhythmic thudding like the muffled sound of a heartbeat through a stethoscope, only too fast and too mechanical for a heart. The beats were so low that Alastair didn’t even so much hear them as feel them; they beat against him, trying to batter him out, perhaps, but also trying to push him into synch with them so that he could come in.
The dash in through the gap in Sebastião’s psychic shields had left Alastair a little scattered, and he began to pull together his projection of himself slowly, piecing together a psycho-physical manifestation of his own body. It wasn’t strictly necessary, and there were even mental situations in which having a body to worry about was more trouble than it was worth, but it still gave Alastair a place to ground himself — and, with any luck, it would be one more piece of evidence for Sebastião’s mind to accept as friendly. Initial shielding notwithstanding, Alastair had detected not so much as a hint of Sebastião’s consciousness guardian network since stepping inside, which was both good and bad news: good because it meant not having to waste precious time negotiating his way past lines of defenses, bad because it let him know that Sebastião didn’t have much time.
By the time he pulled himself together, the thudding was clearly music and the pitch-black limbo around him had started to glow with the edges of a neon pink light. Alastair clenched his hands into fists until they hurt — his final check to make sure that he had full control over his self-image and that the foreign mental medium wasn’t anesthetizing him — then turned around to examine his next step.
…Well, he reflected as he examined the architecture before him, he’d been in minds that had understood themselves as and therefore projected themselves as cities, swamps, mazes, factories, warehouses, beaches, libraries, supermarkets, caves — but he could honestly say this was the first time he’d ever encountered a subconscious disco.
But it was just a disco, in the same way that the Berlin Wall was just a speed bump. The place was lit up with lights every shade you could find in the rainbow, and some you couldn’t. Neon piping twisted its glowing way into fanciful images, geometric designs, and the occasional Portuguese word, which Alastair could read with the some odd linguistic disconnect that happened in the brains of people who thought in languages he didn’t speak; he knew the sense of the words, because he was inside a brain that knew what they meant, but he still knew he didn’t actually know the words, and the dissonance bothered him if he pondered it too long. Music blasted out at such a volume that it seemed mostly to bypass his ears and go straight to his internal organs, so that he could still hear the sound of his own throat-clearing even as the atmosphere gave off the impression of being deafening. The front wall of the building was huge, and the few windows Alastair could see were frosted over with red-tinted glass, so that he could see vague shapes moving behind them, with just enough definition to their movements that he could tell they were human, and dancing. A single entrance stood before him, bleeding purple light from its half-open doorway, and a man in a black suit stood by it, smoking a cigarette.
There was no way for Alastair to act natural — he was by definition unnatural in this place, the perfect foreign object — but he could at least act as though he belonged. He walked toward the man, who looked from a distance to be the same build as Alastair: generally skinny and under six feet. However, as Alastair drew closer, the man seemed to elongate, like a shadow as the afternoon wore on to evening, until they were standing less than a meter apart and Alastair’s head only came up to his mid-shoulder. “Is this the place?” asked Alastair, though it obviously was.
The man smiled; he had too many teeth, and when his lips pulled back Alastair could see they were too sharp. “‘Bout time you showed up,” he said, and his voice made Alastair think of weasels. “Welcome to Club San Sebastian.” His skin was so purple it was nearly black, and where his hat tipped back, a tuft of bright green hair fell out over his forehead.
“Hope you haven’t been waiting long.” That was part of the trick to it, sometimes — making statements that fit into the established conversation, sounding like he knew precisely what was happening. Without waiting for an response, Alastair gave the man a nod and started past him for the door.
“Wait.” One of them man’s arms — long, too long, spider-leg long — extended, blocking Alastair’s progress. “Can’t you read the sign?”
Alastair followed the line of the man’s arm away from his shoulder, down to one spindly pointing finger that indicated a bright white poster on the wall, so unmissably bright Alastair knew it hadn’t been there before. The print was red and artistic, and though Alastair didn’t know what the words themselves meant, their sense was clear: Make Ali take off his gloves.
The purple bouncer snapped twice, then extended his hand, which now appeared to be little more than paper-wrapped bone. “Leave them here.”
It was just a projection, Alastair had to remind himself. Everything in here was real, but nothing was physical, and therefore no objects could contaminate him. There were no germs in the mind; there were dangerous things, to be sure, ideas and anxieties and delusions, but as far as microscopic organisms went, everything was clean because everything was mental. Taking off his gloves here was hardly the same as taking off his gloves in the day-to-day world. He could have chosen never to imagine them in the first place; he could have chosen to construct himself without hands, if he’d wanted, or with iron instead of skin, or with a self wholly intangible.
None of this mental reinforcement explained why his (imagined) hands shook so badly as he peeled off the (imagined) gloves, revealing his (imagined!) bare fingers and palms. Steadying himself, he folded the gloves and placed them into the bouncer’s hand. When the bouncer smiled again, he had even more teeth than he had before, twice as many as should have been able to fit in his mouth, and Alastair clenched his fists until he could almost imagine his knuckles’ splitting open from the strain. “Hello and welcome, handsome,” said the man, his teeth rattling like castinets left hanging in the wind. “Touch anything you like.”
“That … shouldn’t be necessary,” said Alastair, faster and more frantic than he would have liked, and he pushed his way through the door before his nerves could eat him alive.
The inside looked like the kind of thing Dürer would have painted, had he lived a century later and been particularly interested in capturing in remarkable detail Alastair’s own personal vision of hell. Bodies were everywhere — in fact, Alastair wasn’t convinced at first glance that the place wasn’t made wholly of beautiful bodies, no furniture, no structures, just intertwining limbs creating the illusion of floors and ceilings and balconies, and he quite frankly wasn’t sure he could do it, mental conditioning be damned.
But he took another look, and he pushed his tiny, wire-framed glasses tighter up the bridge of his nose — he didn’t project himself even as mildly nearsighted as he was in real life, of course, but after nearly three decades of wearing glasses, some things were habit — until things fell into focus. It wasn’t that the architecture didn’t exist so much as it every inch of it was painted in those impossible rainbows, the same ones as the clothes and skin of the dancers. Everything was moving, pulsing to the beat Alastair felt drumming against his inside; the music would rise to a fever pitch, and everyone would jump together in unison for a few beats, then settle down again, rocking and gyrating in sympathy. There were even some hovering platforms scattered around the room on which the bodies movied, and dancers floated their way gracefully up to them and back down again. Watching it made Alastair feel first seasick, then claustrophobic, then certain he would prefer having his gloves back, despite their practical uselessness. He supposed that he could have imagined himself up another pair, but he remembered the sign, and didn’t enjoy the idea of having the skeletal bouncer come back for another pair. He’d just have to manage.
He feared he might have had to push his way through the crowd, nudging aside dancers lost in their rhythm, but the instant he stepped toward them, the bodies began to part, allowing him passage; more than that, they turned to look at him, smiling and waving as though they were seeing an old friend. None of them actually touched him, and that was a small mercy, because he didn’t know how calmly he could have reacted to such uninvited contact. A few of them did, however, manage to brush up against him with long skirts and loose sleeves, and one particularly bright-faced young woman teased at Alastair’s shoulder with the loose ends of the scarf that tied her massive mane of blue hair back from her face, laughing with delight as he flinched and disappearing into the crowd.
The problem, of course, with walking blindly into such a situation was that Alastair really had no idea where he was going. The dancers didn’t even seem to part in any pattern or manner that might have suggested a path; they merely separated to give Alastair about a half-meter radius of personal space, and when he retreated, they closed in to fill the gap. Most brains, no matter how disorganized, tended to have at least some guiding structure for Alastair to follow; what Sebastião’s was, he couldn’t begin to determine.
There was, however, a bar in the middle of the space — as much as the space could be described as having a ‘middle’, considering that Alastair no longer even saw the wall through which he’d passed to enter the place — a circular structure surrounding a pillar that rose to the ceiling. The pillar was tiered with shelves, a wedding cake hung upside-down; on the shelves, far out of reach, were bottles of every shape and size imaginable, and glasses hung from the underside, tinkling together as they rocked with the heavy bass. As landmarks went, it was a start. Alastair made his way toward it, and was unsurprised to find when he reached it that there was only one seat, and it was empty. Trying — irrationally, he knew — not to touch anything, Alastair braced his elbows against the bar and used his limited and seldom-employed levitational skills to hoist his lower half onto the round vinyl seat.
The bartender turned to him, and Alastair was almost fooled into thinking he’d found Sebastião, though it became clear quickly that the bartender was too large to be his tiny partner, and his eyes were unnaturally wide. On either side of him, silver shakers rocked back and forth in rhythm, though he wasn’t touching either of them. “Let me guess,” said the bartender, cupping his chin in his palm and resting his elbow on the bar in mock deliberation as the shakers shook on, “Long Island Iced TK.”
“Just water,” said Alastair, clearing his throat. He made as though to fold his hands on the bar, then grabbed a cocktail napkin from a nearby stack, placing it on the bar before him and then folding his hands atop that. “I’m on the clock.”
“Water?” asked the bartender, frowning not as though Alastair had said something ridiculous, but as though he’d invented the word on the spot. He cast his gaze up to the shelves above him, and bottles tipped out one after the other, allowing the bartender to see the labels briefly before they settled back into their original place. “Hm, I’m not sure if we have any of that. But maybe I can make something like it for you, if you tell me what’s in it. I’ve got some precognac, cereb’rum, Crème de mentalist…”
“Wine, then,” Alastair interrupted, not wanting to find out precisely how long this could continue. “House white.”
The bartender smiled. “One pineal grigio, coming up.” A green-glass bottle floated down and uncorked itself, then filled half of a delicate wine glass that had come with it. The bartender caught the stem in his deft fingers, then held it out for Alastair to take it. “Here you go, Ali.”
Alastair sighed as he took the glass from the bartender’s hand. “I suppose you know who I am.”
That made the bartender laugh, and he folded his bare, tanned arms across his chest; he looked like he could have been Sebastião’s older brother, or perhaps a close cousin, someone just different enough that they could never be mistaken for one another for more than a few seconds. “We all know who you are,” he grinned. “You’re even around here someplace, a few times. I’ve seen you before.”
“You’ve….” Alastair stopped himself before he could violate his personal rule about not interrogating statements too deeply. “Well, then, can you tell me where to find Sebastião?”
“Who?” asked the bartender, again not being cheeky, but honestly confused. “You’d better drink up, Ali. I don’t think you’ve had enough.”
Alastair couldn’t precisely argue with that statement, so he lifted the glass to his lips and took a small sip–
–know she sees me from across the room / red hair, want to touch it, run my fingers through it, smell it / dancing in the arms of the man with the blue shirt, but glance back at her / realize she’s looking at him, then me / he’s smiling at her / ring on his finger as his hand touches the back of my neck–
Then Alastair swallowed and it was gone. He looked at the glass, startled despite himself. “Memory wine,” he muttered, half-amazed, watching the light spin inside it as it sloshed from side to side. Of course, brains were full of memories that tended to pop up at the most unexpected times, but he’d never actually ingested one before, and now it sat in his belly, the lingering sense of not only being wrapped around someone else’s body but liking it very much. He put the glass back down on the bar without taking a second drink.
“Spring harvest, São Paulo, seventeen years old,” said the bartender, spinning the bottle so that he could read the label. “Good vintage.”
The age made sense, Alastair reckoned: after all, he and Sebastião had only been assigned to work with one another five years previous, and he hadn’t needed the Happy 25th Birthday Babá! iced across the cake at Sebastião’s last office birthday party to know how old his partner was. Given the average two years needed to complete the Agency’s training protocols, whatever he’d seen — tasted — in that glass must have been right before … well, right before whatever had happened to awaken Sebastião’s psychic abilities. He didn’t know what that had been, because he hadn’t asked, because no one asked; even the ones whose initiative experiences had been positive tended to keep that to themselves, not wanting to seem gauche by bragging about unexpected superhuman accomplishments to people with scars.
The bartender winked at Alastair and laughed, then turned to deal with the orders of a couple at the other side of the bar. His shirt was sleeveless and dark grey, like an undershirt though somehow even less covering, and Alastair squinted at his half-bared back in the strange array of lights; at first he thought the bartender’s back was only weirdly shadowed, but as Alastair looked closer, the shadows weren’t the fault of the lights but of the bartender’s deep red skin, how it stretched and cracked in a way Alastair had only seen once before — through a window in the medical ward, after a truly horrifying accident at the pyrokinesis range.
But that made little sense, given Sebastião’s Agency inherent potential profile … which, Alastair was somewhat puzzled to discover, was chalked up in neon letters behind the bar, in the place where less cerebral establishments might have listed what was on draft that night:
telekinesis … 87th percentile
levitation … 98th percentile
precognition … 12th percentile
remote viewing … 59th percentile
projection … 95th percentile
shielding … 64th percentile
pyrokinesis … N/A*
*unable to administer
Alastair had glanced over the sheet when he’d first heard he was going to be assigned the rookie, figuring that the partnership would last no more than the few months each of his previous partnerships had survived — then committed it to memory when he realized that this one, for once, might not be going anywhere. Even at the time, he’d been impressed by all the scores (except precognition, of course, but Alastair’s own potential there was below the first percentile, so he didn’t hold that against anyone), and hadn’t spared half a thought to the pyrokinesis line; it was the most difficult skill to master, after all, to say nothing of its being the most dangerous, and many agents had no aptitude for it whatsoever. At the time, Alastair had attributed the lack of a score to an inability to perform on the test sufficient to get a measurable reading.
But that hadn’t been what the footnote had said, and the bottom two lines on the board were written in bright, thick white chalk, so that Alastair couldn’t have missed them if he’d wanted to. They hadn’t been able to give him the test at all.
Alastair beckoned to the bartender, who floated over, turning his back from Alastair so that whatever marks might have been there disappeared from Alastair’s view. “The person whose scores these are,” said Alastair, pointing to the chalkboard, “what if I wanted to talk to him?”
The bartender laughed. “He’s around here somewhere. He’s always around.”
“Well, yes, but…” Alastair sighed, nodding to the maddening crowd. “I was hoping you could be a little more specific. You see, I’d really like to speak with him.”
“Talk?” The bartender scoffed, giving Alastair a look that Alastair had come to associate with Sebastião, several strategically placed snaps, and the heavily accented and usually incorrectly applied phrase oh girl. “Brother bear, you have come to the wrong place for talking.”
That gave Alastair pause. He turned back to look at the crowd, and this time, he really looked at them. The bodies around him were all different shapes and sizes and definitely all different colours, in more genders and ages and races than Alastair had ever seen represented at one time in the real world, but they all had one thing in common: they were all happy. Moving to the music, waving limbs, bobbing heads, grinding up against one another, every one wore a near-ecstatic smile.
The top layer of the psyche, Alastair had learned the day he’d started dive training at the tender age of thirteen, was as much conscious as subconscious. Just like people made conscious decisions every day about how to present themselves outwardly because of and despite deeper concerns, the mind constructed its outermost stage in the shape of how it wanted to be seen. If we could all live on the surface of our minds, his instructors had told him, we would all be much happier and more carefree people. But no one’s mind stopped at one level down.
“Then,” said Alastair, turning back to the bartender, “I’d really like to dance with him.”
The bartender smiled, and as he did, his smile reached back past the corners of his mouth, toward his ears, until the whole lower third of his face was separated from the top part by a canyonlike gash that made Alastair recoil. “Now that’s a German of a different colour,” he hissed, and a snake’s tongue slipped out from between his lips, licking all over his face. “You just follow that yellow brick road until you smell the Emerald City burning.”
Alastair stumbled backward off his seat and fled blindly into the crowd, burning with a deep primal terror that told him it didn’t matter what he was doing or why he was there, he had to get away from that thing as quickly as possible. Away he charged, running for several seconds until he realized two things: one, the bar was no longer visible around him, as a threat or landmark; and two, the crowd had stopped obeying their previous unspoken rule about personal space. Neither, however, really settled in until he took his eyes from where he was going for a fraction of a second and plowed, face-first, into the astonishing breasts of an incredibly tall woman.
“I am so sorry,” he began, trying to push away and make sure they were both all right while simultaneously having to find anywhere to look that wasn’t where his nose had just been. “So, so sorry, it’s just–”
“Shh, sugar.” She lifted a long finger to his lips, though she didn’t quite make contact, letting the pad of her finger hover just close enough that he could feel the heat of her body; her skin was deep cherry red, and her fingernails were bright tangerine. “Where are you going in such a hurry? You stay right here and let Mama take care of you.”
Alastair found his feet were having a difficult time interpreting his command to them to move him somewhere else. “I’m … looking for my friend.” He cleared his throat, and found that the problem with trying not to look at her breasts was trying not to look at just how short her skirt was. “His name is Sebastião.”
“Sebastião?” she repeated, rolling the name off her tongue with perfect Portuguese pronunciation; Alastair had once spent an entire evening alone with a tape recorder, saying his partner’s name and playing it back until he got it right (though he’d never been able to quite work the little initial z out of his mouth). “No, baby, no, there’s nobody named that here.”
“He, ah.” Alastair looked around, trying to find some way to salvage the situation without giving himself away. “He … owns this place, in a way.”
Her face brightened with recognition. “Oh, Babá!” She laughed, touching his shoulder. “Sweetie, little tip: nobody calls him ‘Sebastião’ in here.”
“But…” Alastair frowned. “But that’s his name.”
“Honey, sometimes there’s a difference between your name and what your parents told the government to call you.” She laughed and put her hands on his chest, then slipped her fingers back toward his shoulders, pushing his jacket off with her; Alastair bit his mental tongue so hard he thought he might actually cause his real body to bleed, but he stood still and allowed it, careful not to upset the delicate system more than he already might have. “My birth certificate says ‘Alfonso’,” she grinned, leaning against his hip to make the point, “but my name is Madalena.”
Alastair’s eyebrows raised, and he permitted himself an open once-over — which, he saw now, changed the whole way he looked at how that short skirt bunched in the front. “I … honestly would never have known,” he said, and he meant it.
Madalena laughed, and bent down to give him an air-kiss on either cheek. “Aren’t you the sweetest thing? I can see why he likes you so much!” She tapped the bridge of Alastair’s nose with the tip of her fingernail. “And, well, I have to say I pass a whole lot better in here than out there, but don’t tell the real me or she will just have a fit about it.”
That made Alastair’s eyebrows raise even farther, then furrow as he examined her. “You’re….”
“A self-aware projection, yes, yes.” She tossed her bright silver hair over her shoulder, and the wooden beads she’d threaded through it clattered against one another. “It’s often what happens when you make a projection of a psychic. I was the first bruja he was ever with; I left a bit of an,” she leaned harder against Alastair’s hip until he could feel something he was fairly certain meant she was happy to see him, “impression.”
“I–” Alastair cleared his throat, deciding that the only safe place to look was well above her neck. “I can see why.”
“Look, darling,” she bent in closer, as though anyone else could hear them over the club music — though Alastair had to admit, he’d almost started to be able to ignore it, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s bad. And I’m not the only one who can see it. People, things … they’re starting to change. But I can’t trust you with telling you how to get to him until I know you’re not one of them.”
With that, Alastair was presented with possibly the most difficult challenge of his life: proving his intentions to the satisfaction of the inside of someone else’s head. Options swirled around his brain, each one seeming worse than the last: he could promise her, but words were hardly binding; he could share a piece of information, but unless that information was already present for her to access, it did him no good; he could offer to perform some task for her, but he’d burned enough time already.
“…You’re a psychic?” he asked, and she nodded. “Then close your eyes and let me share.”
Madalena quirked one skeptical eyebrow, but she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, until Alastair could feel the air around her change, her hard shields (which must have been natural, he thought, he’d never met anyone like her at the Agency) giving way to a softer shimmer. Counting on the visualization to help his case, Alastair reached up to his own temple and plucked out a small, glowing sphere, which he took and touched to her forehead–
—singing again / grumble at him to stop, I’m working, let me concentrate / he laughs / floats a book over to my desk / makes my coffee cup dance / keeps singing / want to grab him / tear off my gloves and feel his skin electric / tell him there’s no one else like him / call him mine—
Alastair closed his fist, and the sphere retracted; Madalena waited for a moment, then opened her eyes. “…Oh, love,” she said, holding one hand to her heart as though it pained her, and pointing to her left with the other. “Last stall in the men’s restroom. Hurry, go, before it gets me too.”
“Thank you,” he nodded, but before he could flee, she caught his shoulder.
“You know he has no idea.” She looked at him with big, deep eyes, shaking her head. “No idea at all.”
“Our secret,” said Alastair, squeezing his fist tight until the orb was crushed.
The first time Alastair had ever seen the word Zwangsstörungen had been when he was eight, written on the spine of a book left by his German father’s side of the bed; even at the time, he’d much preferred its English name, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which he’d read across the cover of a similar book on his Scottish mother’s nightstand. Those had been the months after his first set of visits to the analyst’s office, after a series of increasingly troubling behaviours which had culminated in one Tuesday evening when the peas on Alastair’s plate had touched his mashed potatoes, and he’d pitched an uncontrolled fit so violent and self-injurious they’d had to call the paramedics to come sedate him. His parents had tried so hard to understand him and love him, even on the days when he’d made them scrub their hands to the elbows, surgical-style, before they could even tuck him into bed at night; they’d come with him to all his therapist sessions, changed their lives to accommodate his peculiarities, and washed everything in the house as many times as he needed it to be washed, as often as he needed it to be washed, until he could relax enough to stop pacing and go to sleep.
Still, even at ten he could tell that they’d been overall relieved when he’d started spending more and more time at the Agency. At the time of his hire, he’d been their youngest trainee to date, and he’d seen that the two scouts who’d shown up to his room the week after what his mother politely called ‘The Accident’ had been nervous selling what was in effect a full-time secret agent job to a kid whose voice hadn’t even started to change. They’d promised that he could still live at home while he trained, but within a month he was spending six nights out of seven in an Agency dormitory, and by his twelfth birthday, to what seemed the mutual satisfaction of both parties, he was seeing his parents once a year at the Christmas holidays.
His reason for preferring the Agency dormitories was simple: he had control. Presumably briefed on how he didn’t care for physical contact, no one had initiated so much as a handshake. When the director had learned about his preference for food separateness, she’d encouraged him to request his food served in individual dishes, which he was allowed to watch come steaming fresh from the industrial washer. If he wanted to rearrange all the books on his shelf every day (or even twice some days), no one raised any objections. Even the custodial staff had low-level telekinetic abilities, and when he asked them not to touch anything in his room, they left not so much as a fingerprint in their wake. And slowly, as he’d learned to control his environment and his abilities more fully, he’d gotten a little better.
Yet there was one hurdle he’d never quite mastered, and now he stood in front of the doorway to the men’s restroom, balling his bare hands into fists, trying not to shake.
There were, to Alastair’s compulsive, obsessive mind, fewer things in the world more putrid than toilets, and there were few things that made a place disgusting more efficiently than its being open for general use; thus, public bathroom were right out. He tried to push at his reluctance with logic, and gut terror pushed right back — even the pure, certain knowledge that this whole event was occurring entirely over an intangible mental connection couldn’t make him take another step forward. The dancing bodies whirled and gyrated around him, but he remained still.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he muttered to himself, gritting his teeth so hard he could feel his jaw begin to ache. “You are being absurd, you are being terrible, now get in there!”
His feet remained unmoved.
Alastair took another deep breath. “You worthless idiot, you absolute piece of shit,” he said, this time at a full, normal speaking volume. The dancers didn’t seem to mind — nor did they seem to be responding to him at all anymore, in fact. The song had changed while Alastair hadn’t been paying attention, speeding its tempo and gaining an ominous, wordless rhythmic breathing percussion to accompany the heavy bass, and the dancers’ looks of ecstacy had been replaced with expressions of almost pained compulsion, as though they were all the dancing princesses of the fairy tale, doomed to twirl and spin until they fell down dead. “All right, on the count of three. One … two … three!”
He didn’t budge.
“You know what? This is childish.” Alastair slammed his balled fists into his thighs, hard enough that the impact would have been bruising, had it been physical. He was shouting now, not caring who heard him or how much it compromised the integrity of the mental structure surrounding him. “You’re being childish. You’re being a baby. You don’t even have to touch anything. Stop being pathetic and push.”
The door to the bathroom creaked open a fraction of an inch, moved as far as he could muster up his TK to make it go, and he could see a bright blue glow from inside, the special sick shade of neon lights off clashing tile. He let go with his mind, but the door remained open, as though waiting for another nudge.
“Stupid, stupid, worthless and stupid, he’s going to die!” Alastair tasted salt at the corner of his mouth and realized that his projection, completely without his conscious prompting, had started to cry with frustration. “He is going to die, and you are going to die, and if you keep standing here you’ll both die, so get over yourself and go!”
The thought that Sebastião– no, that Babá might suffer because of his inaction was the final punch he needed. With a wave of TK so powerful he wound up making a sweeping gesture with his arms just to get it out of him, he flung the door back with such force that it shattered when it hit the wall behind it, crumbling into dust at Alastair’s feet. Riding the momentum, Alastair charged forward into the tiny bathroom, out of the impossible rainbow and into the blue.
The room wasn’t empty. All three stalls appeared to be, at least, and the one farthest from the door emitted a flickering orange light, making Alastair doubly certain that it had been the one Madalena had meant. He found himself stuck, however, on the presence of two men by the sink, one pressing the other to the wall in a passionate embrace, both of whom looked very familiar.
Alastair’s first disorienting assessment of the situation was that they were both him.
His second, slightly clearer, was that no, that wasn’t quite right — they just looked like him, enough that if you’d squinted or looked in poor light, you might not have been able to tell the difference. But there were definite dissimilarities among all three of them, despite the resemblance: one of the men was heavier than he was by a good twenty pounds, and his dark hair was streaked with artificial yellow highlights; the other was taller than Alastair and wore a pencil-thin moustache that was visible as he sucked on the other’s ear. He’d seen himself inside the memories of people who’d known him — during his youth, mostly, as the instructors had opened up parts of their own psyches as training grounds — and was thus accustomed to some standard deviation between his own self-concept and the way other people remembered him; these differences, however, were too much to be simple misremembered facts, too specific to be anything but real.
As Alastair stumbled over the wreckage of the door, the one with the moustache glanced over his shoulder at the intruder. “Oh, another one,” he said, sounding vaguely amused even as he rolled his eyes.
The heavier man didn’t even bother looking. “Don’t be silly. This one’s the real deal.” With a wicked little smirk, he reached one of his hands into the other man’s trousers and pulled out his cock, long and pale and hard. A bead of precome on its tip glinted blue in the light, a perfect sapphire balanced atop silver-pink skin.
“Oh,” said the man with the moustache, though Alastair couldn’t tell to which of them he was reacting. He caught his lower lip between his teeth and thrust his hips into the touch. “Maybe he’ll suck me off.”
“How about it?” The heaver man finally cracked open one eye in Alastair’s direction, fixing him in place with a sharp, smirking glare, and a too-long tongue snaked out of his mouth, flicking at the other man’s throat. “Come on, handsome, come get a taste.”
Suddenly, all of Alastair’s decisions became that much easier. With a surge of adrenaline fueled by equal parts terror, disgust, and inexplicable arousal, Alastair bolted for the last stall as fast as his legs could carry him. The ground seemed to extend beneath his feet, so he ran faster and pushed past the first two stalls, on to the third. With no time to concentrate on making it move without contact, he slammed into the door of the third stall with his shoulder, and before he could even stop to think about what was on the other side of it, he was falling, tumbling into light and heat and the growing smell of charred wood.
The next thing that really reached Alastair’s mind was the quiet, an absense of sound so loud it made his ears ring. When he could see again, all he saw was white, so he closed his eyes, giving his psyche a moment to re-adjust to the new conditions. He wasn’t standing anymore; he was crumpled on his side, as though he’d fallen a great distance before landing, and his cheek was pressed against the cool plaster floor. With a quick psychic check around him to make sure that it was safe to do so, Alastair levitated himself to his feet and took visual stock of his surroundings.
What he saw stretched out before him was a corridor, a long expanse of plain white walls punctuated evenly on both sides by doors of heavy, dark mahogany. All the doors were closed, but gave the sense of being unlocked. This surprised Alastair not at all, considering that that this was a level of the psyche where, strictly speaking, no one but the mind’s owner was supposed to go, and it seemed a fairly free and open structure, leading Alastair to assume that he’d fallen into an area of everyday long-term memories, ones freely stored and freely retrieved. His job often demanded that he dive below targets’ outer projected layers to areas of memory access and information retrieval, and he’d become quite adept at telling the difference between casual and critical storage.
This, however, wasn’t a mission, and the vagueness of his objective finally started to grate on him. With targets supplied by the Agency, he was always given a goal: go here, find this, clean that, get out. But an unknown weapon and unknown damage meant a lot more unknowns at this level, and for the first time since the initial alert had sounded, Alastair was really starting to regret his decision to dive first and ask questions later.
On the wall just to his right, at about the level of his head to his chest, was a shallow recess in the wall, just deep enough to house a painting and a single votive candle. The candle, lit, flickered inside its little red glass enclosure; he thought for a moment it might be the source of the burning odor, but he sniffed it, and it smelled of nothing, not even wax. Its dim light illuminated a masterful oil miniature of a beautiful young man with a silver halo, naked except for a cloth draped around his hips (and even that looked ready to fall off at a moment’s notice), bound to a pole and shot through with arrows. Just below his feet, gold letters in a language Alastair couldn’t read but could still understand implored someone, likely that poor young man, to pray for us.
Well, Alastair thought, at least someone here was having arguably a worse time than he was.
The first knob gave easily with the thought of turning it, and the door swung open, revealing a scene behind, frozen, waiting for its cue. The brief, semi-coherent bursts of recalled sensation like the one contained in the memory wine and the one that he’d shared with Madalena were barely echoes, lingering sensations that could be brought to mind without any context or preface. What Alastair faced behind the frame, however, were real, full memories — not fragments woven into a coherent frame, but the actual, narrative recollections of having been at a place, for a time, during which something important happened.
Before him sat a boy and a girl on a low stone wall, both dangling their bare feet over the side, though hers were much closer to touching the dusty ground than his. The image was angled so that Alastair was viewing in all from behind the boy’s head and over his right shoulder; Alastair had found that the majority of people — excepting the uncanny ones with photographic memories — compiled their memories this way, not as though their own eyes were the camera, but slightly removed, inserting their own self-images in ways they couldn’t possibly have seen themselves at the time. Though he was unable to see the boy’s face clearly from that angle, Alastair had no trouble identifying those sun-bleached curls (which apparently had been even less tameable when Babá had been in his early teens) or the lanky tanned frame they topped. The girl was lovely, with miles of black hair and wide brown eyes, and her hand held Babá’s tight, their fingers twined. The sun shone bright from beyond the frame, and even at arm’s length, Alastair could feel the excited nervousness that vibrated out from the vignette.
Alastair’s great sense of privacy meant that he hated being a voyeur, but he had been able to rationalize every time before this, either by reasoning that the memories he’d encountered during training had been left by his instructors on purpose, or that he neither knew nor cared about his targets and thus could refrain from making judgments. Now, however, despite his very concrete awareness of immediate danger, he felt like an incredible creep peeping in on Babá’s concrete, coherent second-tier memories. What made him feel slightly better about it was how it looked to be a happy memory, and therefore likely one Babá — never a private person, often in a way that troubled Alastair’s already-troubled heart — would not have felt any compunctions about sharing. Maybe the answer would be inside one of these, Alastair thought, and he reached out his hand to touch the transparent veil of the scene.
The boy and girl both snapped their heads to look straight at him. Both of them opened their mouths to show too many rows of too-sharp teeth and growled, the girl as though she wanted to tear Alastair’s flesh from his bones, the boy as though his plan for devouring their unexpected guest involved something else entirely. Beyond them, the sky blackened with a sudden storm, and the wind rose in a gale, whipping the boy’s curls about his face as he crouched, lean and feral, and began to pounce–
Alastair jumped back with a shout and slammed the door behind him, then backed all the way to the doorless far wall, trying to catch his breath. Rationally, he could chalk this up as a learning experience: the weapon must have piggybacked on Babá’s own mental defense systems, turning the brain’s simple attempts at rejecting foreign objects into pure hostility. Irrationally, he just wanted to curl into a ball and hide under the covers until the monsters stopped being able to smell him.
But that wouldn’t get either of them out, he told himself, and so he stood again, taking a moment to pull himself together. He glanced back at the little alcove, toward the tiny saint shrine, and gave a sigh; if someone was supposed to be praying for him, it wasn’t working.
He tried a second door, then a third, then every one on the hall, each time careful not to get close enough to the membrane that separated the memory from the hallway. None of them, however, provided any more information than the first had, and he soon found himself at the end of the hall, with every door opened and no way of going forward.
“Come on,” he said aloud, trying to convince Babá’s brain as much as anything, “nobody’s memories are this isolated. There’s got to be a connector somewhere.”
The worst part was, Alastair knew the solution before he even articulated the problem: no memory could be approached from only one direction. If he could just get through one without setting off the alarm system, he could see where the other exits led. The problem, of course, was that very alarm system, which didn’t just want to remove him from what it considered restricted areas, but now wanted to hurt him in the process. With enough time, he could no doubt work up the concentration and the specific mental defenses to deal with the threat, but time was already a diminished quantity.
Babá’s brain, he reminded himself, and therefore, Babá’s rules. He wasn’t going to solve this thinking like himself; he was going to have to think like his partner. Bludgeoning his way forward wouldn’t work, obviously, which meant that Alastair’s usual method of dealing with problems was right out — but tricking the system, that just might. Alastair thought back to the doors he’d opened and the scenes he’d found behind them, all connected by that same sense of heightened, giddy anticipation: standing on the high branch of a tree, about to jump from it into a brown lake a dangerous distance below; caught between a man and a woman (the same ones from the wine, Alastair knew, though he didn’t know how he knew) in the back of a taxi, the woman’s hand on his knee, the man’s fingers pulling up his t-shirt; standing in front of the Agency’s approval board with his near-perfect test scores in hand; walking, flanked by his supervisors, toward his new partner’s old office on his first day of work–
That was it. Alastair dashed back to the first-day memory, hoping against all hope that he was correct. He stopped in front of the door frame, taking a deep breath, thinking clearly I belong here until he was certain it had soaked him through. That done, he extended his hand toward the frame, and the vignette behind it clicked into action:
Babá has his hands in his pockets so the supervisors can’t tell how nervous he is; he tries to look confident, but is certain that even non-psychic individuals could detect the storm of butterflies that have taken up residence in his stomach. He’s worn a suit today, though he’s never worn a suit before in his life, much less owned one, and is very sure that no matter how many times the pleasant grandfatherly clerk in the store explained to him (in their shared limited English) how to knot the tie, he’s done it wrong. But he wants to make a good impression, and he’s gathered from what they’ve told him about his new partner that dressing well is a good start.
Now, remember, Captain O’Hara is telling him (though Babá is having a very hard time keeping up with both his English and his accent, and so this is all a paraphrase), he’s only your partner until we can find someone new for you; try to keep your chin up until then.
On his other side, Assistant Director Powell nods and puts his hand on Babá’s shoulder; he’s a man who reminds Babá of a very gentle refrigerator, big enough that Babá’s eye level is the same as his tie tack, and he’s always touching and hugging and shaking hands, which is why Babá likes him best so far. He’s a very nice man and a very good agent, he reassures Babá in his limited (and continental, and thus funny-sounding) Portuguese.
I know, Babá nods, and he smiles. He’s been well-prepared for this by … well, essentially everyone he’s encountered since the news of his assignment came down. Everyone has told him, time and again: he’s a little weird; he’s more than a little weird; don’t shake his hand; don’t use his coffee cup; don’t touch his coffee cup; in fact, don’t touch anything he owns; nobody really knows him that well outside of work; he’s the best at what he does, and he’s a very nice guy to talk to, but don’t expect to get close….
Alastair saw Powell beckon the door open with a wave of his hand, revealing the first inch of the interior of a very familiar office, and in that moment, Alastair took a deep breath and stepped through.
He’s caught inside the most overwhelming, nauseating sense of déjà vu he’s ever experienced as he finds himself looking up from his desk the same way he remembers having done five years ago, only the difference is now he’s the omniscient viewer, holding on to his own thoughts even as he’s aware of everything Babá thinks, feels, and knows. Only through tremendous self-effort does he manage to remain in place, screwing his face into the same disinterested mask he knows the scene requires of him and barely turning to glance over his shoulder as O’Hara and Powell part like the Red Sea and let Babá through.
He’s incredibly good-looking, Alastair thinks, and then it hits him that he’s not the only one thinking this, which nearly serves to knock him off his mark for the second time. He catches a glimpse of himself in a small mirrored plaque by the door and is startled briefly by the unfamiliarity of his own face — because the man who looks back at him is good-looking, or at least more so than Alastair is in real life: jaw strong, hair neatly styled, wearing in a sweater vest that looks sharp and not frumpy, coming off as nothing of the mythic monster his superiors have scared Babá into expecting and everything of the master of his craft at home in his own ruled domain, a sort of shorter, psychic-er James Bond–
Alastair does a quick check to make sure that his own subconscious (or hell, he should own it, conscious) desire isn’t influencing the scenario before him, but no, everything about that memory authenticates as having been generated wholly by Babá’s brain. He doesn’t have time to linger on the consequences of this, though, because he has to push back from his desk and stand to greet his guests. Good afternoon, gentlemen, he says — or he tries to say, at least, but Babá’s only been studying English for the past two years and he’s never heard someone speak it with a German accent before, so there’s a delay between what comes out of his mouth and the moment it starts making sense. Alastair doesn’t know this at the time, though, so he continues undaunted: This must be the new partner I’ve been told to expect.
Alastair, says Captain O’Hara (who’s known Alastair since he was twelve and this is one of the few people in the Agency who feels he’s merited first-name privileges), I’d like you to meet Sebastião dos Anjos. This is his first day in the main offices, so we’ve been showing him around a bit, but if you could complete the tour, that’d be most kind of you.
Babá barely — just barely — remembers not to extend his hand; instead, he gives an awkward sort of half-nod, half-bow, keeping his hands in his pants pockets so his freezing fingertips warm against his hot palms. It is very nice to meet you, he says to Alastair, because it’s the simplest, politest thing he can come up with on short notice. He shifts inside his ill-fitting suit, wishing that he’d taken the Assistant Director at his word when he’d said, there’s no dress code here, as long as you can do your job in it, you can wear anything you want. But he wants to make a good impression so much, and now he’s scared that in seven words and an awkward gesture, he’s ruined his chance.
But Alastair sizes him up in an instant, and though he doesn’t smile, he nods. Please, he says, stepping back from the door and indicating the side of the room vacated not two weeks previous by the last rookie they tried to throw at him, come in and get settled; I can show you where to put your things.
I have no things, says Babá, who immediately feels stupid for having said it, and amends, but when I get things I will need them somewhere to put, so yes, thank you, please.
O’Hara and Powell share a smile over Babá’s head, a completely unprofessional look of isn’t he just precious? and Alastair might feel more offended by that (on Babá’s behalf, of course) if they weren’t so correct. He is precious, small and bright and eager to please and apparently egoless, and when he walks over to his desk he gives the impression that his feet might not be making full contact with the floor. He looks it over, slightly overwhelmed — he’s never had a desk before, and he isn’t entirely certain what to do with one now that he has it, but he’s not going to make a further fool of himself by asking — then gives it a nod to look like it meets his standards and turns back to his supervisors with a smile.
Powell, always something of a soft touch down to his unbridled optimism in assigning Alastair yet another no-doubt-temporary partner, claps his hands together and grins. Well, then, we’ll leave you both to get acquainted, he says, and he and O’Hara disappear, shutting the door behind them.
Alastair knows this dance well by now: the supervisors leave him with his new partner; his new partner starts a conversation to be friendly despite lingering discomfort from everything everyone else in the Agency has said about the peculiarities of its most talented cleaner; Alastair responds badly or misinterprets a friendly gesture or lets his obsessive tendencies show through too soon; the new partner’s discomfort gets worse; and no more than six months later, the new partner has found a different assignment. By this point, he’s come to accept it as inevitable, and he turns to his newest new partner, determined as ever not to get attached.
When he gets there, though, Babá is smiling and actually sitting on his desk, letting his little feet kick in the air. He’s not looking at Alastair; he’s looking at Alastair’s exceptionally neat workspace, and the bookshelves above where Alastair has placed some of the souvenirs he’s acquired from past assignments. Alastair knows all the stories behind how he acquired the objects, of course, but to Babá they’re completely new, and his imagination takes off until he’s picturing Alastair doing all sorts of heroic things while acquiring them: solving cases, helping the helpless, rescuing the perishing, and basically just plain saving the day. Babá looks at the little blue-and-white porcelain bowl, the tiny watercolour of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, the wooden figure of a peasant fisherman and his basket of jade fish on his back, the hand-sized brass statue of a lion-maned dog, the tiny monkey carved from a peach pit, the obsidian knife with the deer-bone handle — and thinks, in a moment of perfect clarity: you’re not the monster they’ve made you out to be at all.
So, Alastair clears his throat, and Babá looks back to him with an earnest open smile, would you like me to show you more around the office?
Yes, very much, please, says Babá, and he hops off the desk, landing lightly on the floor; of all the powers he’s learned to harness during his training, levitation is definitely, definitely the best. Alastair pulls the door open with a mental tug and–
The sudden change of venue startled him enough that he stumbled forward, and when he put out his hand to catch himself, it came to rest on the same cold white walls as he’d seen before. A quick glance around, however, revealed that he was indeed somewhere different; the hallway was shorter now, and slightly rounded, with doors only on one side. He’d made it through.
As modes of transport went, though, it was far from easy. The cognitive dissonance of having two consciousnesses active at once was alone enough to give him the mental projection equivalent of a headache, and what happened if he hit a dead end? After all, they’d only been partners for a fifth of Babá’s life, which meant there’d no doubt be far more memories without Alastair than with. Besides, this method of travel had no way of controlling its destination; he was at the mercy of Babá’s connections, and there was no telling what the organizational system was or how much the weapon had corrupted it.
It was perhaps a commentary on how dire the predicament had become that the knowledge that Babá might be as attracted to Alastair as much and as long as Alastair to him, something that under any other circumstances would have been earth-shattering for Alastair, didn’t even place in the top ten of his considerations at the moment.
No, he needed to focus on what he could do, and that was to keep pushing forward. There were only four doors here, excluding the one he’d just passed through, and a quick glance through each revealed four scenes: Babá, very young, kneeling on the floor next to a woman about to give birth; a giant street carnival, full of lights and music; a tiny room with two women Alastair recognized as Agency scouts, giving Babá what was probably his first lesson in psychic ability; and the inside of a crowded cocktail party Alastair recognized from one of the first missions they’d gone on together. At the periphery of the scene, he saw himself at a far table, and took the opportunity to slip inside.
The Target has her fingers tucked inside the crook of Babá’s arm, and they’ve been talking for the past half hour so intimately that everyone else could probably get up and leave, and the Target, at least, would never notice.
Babá would, though, because he’s kept a low-level connection open with Alastair all evening: nothing fancy or invasive, just two people holding the ends of a string taut, each ready to act the second the other side goes slack. Before stepping into the room that evening, he’d worried for hours about how badly he might stick out, with his rural upbringing and general lack of refined social graces; by now, he’s realized that those actually make him more charming to the right people, provided they’ve had enough of High Society to become bored with it. He tells the Target it’s the first time he’s ever worn a tuxedo, because it’s true, and she laughs and air-kisses his cheek in a way that shows affection but doesn’t mess up her lipstick. Her father’s company did business in Brazil when she was a child, so she tries out her rudimentary Portuguese on him, and he gushes overmuch about how good her few phrases sound. Babá almost feels bad about having to do this to her.
Alastair, however, does not. Even if he were inclined to sentimentality about his job, which he isn’t, they’ve got good reason: she’s got information stored in her head that she doesn’t know she has, knowledge of an event that could destroy her older brother’s business if it gets out, her father’s murder witnessed but suppressed years ago. At least, that’s what her younger brother thinks, and why he’s contracted with the Agency to find out if it’s there, and, if so, to clean away the blockage. If it turns out to be true, she stands a chance of spilling a secret that will take down a company connected to sweatshop labour and oppressive governments.
Her older brother, in Alastair’s opinion, is a bit of a bastard.
They’ve chosen the cocktail party as their way in for a variety of reasons, most prominent being that the Target’s older brother keeps close tabs on her at all times — yet while he would no doubt raise the alarm at any unexpected guests that came her way, who could object to her being won over by a charming new acquaintance at a friend’s reception? Alastair doesn’t even enter into the picture: his unique ability to dive remotely means he can stay comfortably at his chair in the corner all evening, evaporating his martini at a reasonable pace. Only Babá has to get close enough to her to touch, and he’s had no problem doing that.
In fact, he likes her a lot, and loves the semi-drunken way she wants to get her hands all over him as much their circumstances will allow. He loves being touched, pet, kissed, caressed, stroked, hugged — and even though he knows this evening won’t end in sex for a multitude of reasons, that knowledge doesn’t bother him. After all, his evenings out rarely end in actual clothes-off-fluids-spilt sex, and he definitely dodges one-night stands, even ones as pretty as she is. He likes her, but he doesn’t love her, and thus he won’t shed any tears over giving his regrets outside the door to her room and never stepping foot inside.
(Somewhere, in the part of Alastair’s mind not occupied with playing the memory out to the other side, this information set a number of interesting trains of thought off from their stations, but he’d have to finish this first; he could have time later to consider their destinations.)
Before they can get to that good-night kiss, though, there’s a job to be done. He offers to freshen her drink and takes both their glasses back to the bar; Babá’s had a number of mojitos through the evening, though he’s sent nearly every drop of them into the base of the potted plant beside their chairs, and he hopes that ficus likes mint. As he stands there, waiting on the bartender (a handsome older gentleman with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard, and the way he grins at Babá lets Babá know he’d like to do things to Babá that Babá very much likes to think about letting him do), he tugs on the string between them and asks Alastair, in sensations as much as words, are you ready?
On your count, Alastair nods, and he can’t hold back a smile as the corner of Babá’s mouth quirks into a grin. Are you ready?
I think so. Babá glances back over to where the Target is sitting, playing with the hem of her dress and looking pleasantly tipsy. You’re going to be with me the entire time, right?
I’ve got your back, Alastair thinks, and when this surprises Babá enough that he actually turns to give Alastair a look of surprise, Alastair chuckles into his drink. Time to step up. You lead and I’ll follow.
Excitement hums down the connection between them; Babá’s apprehension over the particulars of their mission has been overwritten by the thrill of actually doing it, and the idea that Alastair is going to let him take point makes him so giddy he has to concentrate on not floating off the ground and blowing their cover right then and there. He takes the drinks and goes to sit back down next to the Target, taking her hand with one of his and letting the other rest on his knee.
Agency rules mandate all non-consentual dives into unfamiliar minds be done in tandem, which is why the Agency insists that Alastair have a partner, regardless of whether or not that partner likes him. Three days ago, however, Alastair came into the office to find a single, unopened, plastic-wrapped cupcake sitting on his desk and all his paperclips rearranged into the words happy first aniversery! (he would go to his grave without pointing out that misspelling), a milestone he never thought he’d hit, and as he watches Babá extend three fingers across his knee, then slowly retract one, he wonders what the hell is so magical about Babá that he keeps making the impossible possible.
Babá retracts a second finger, counting down, and he smiles sweetly at the Target. I want to show you a trick, he says, can you close your eyes? Her lids shut with trusting anticipation, and Babá curls his hand into a fist as he tugs on the line between them, then dives forward, Alastair barely a thought’s length behind him, on their way in–
This time, what waited on the other side of the memory was not a hall, but a room, a circular space with three doors, one of which he’d just tumbled through. He didn’t know if having his options narrowed was a good or a bad sign, but he decided to lean toward optimism. Now he’d only have to check out two memories before finding out how to proceed.
Yet try as he might, he couldn’t seem to push himself forward without coming to terms with a piece of information that was becoming unavoidable. Babá had lovers, Alastair knew, or at least he’d thought he knew; Alastair had watched him flirt and laugh and kiss with countless numbers of attractive people of all types, and had always just assumed that whenever he excused himself and retired for the evening, what happened next would be … whatever happened next. Even though Alastair’s particular difficulties had kept him from nearly all human physical contact for the past thirty years of his life, he understood the theoretical parameters of sex, and at least assumed that Babá was one of the people in the world who had it as much and as often as he wanted. And why wouldn’t he? He was charming, funny, and amazingly attractive, and Alastair had seen the way even the most unlikely people got that hungry look in their eyes around him.
But he’d seen the great psychedelic disco on the top level of Babá’s brain, and it occurred to him that they’d all just been … dancing. Madalena hadn’t played to type (but what could you expect from a self-aware projection?) and he didn’t know what to make of the men in the bathroom, but with those exceptions, everyone had just been moving to the music amongst the great human crowd, touching and pressing and moving away again. It had been sexual, certainly, but it had been just as much about contact and not being alone.
…He couldn’t think about that now; he shouldn’t even have seen that, any of that, and to use it past the mission would be the worst invasion of privacy Alastair could imagine. He resolved to forget everything he’d seen as soon as they surfaced again. Babá’s private life was his own, and if it pained Alastair that he’d never be a part of it, well, that was because of Alastair’s problems, not Babá’s, and he’d lived long enough with his gloves and his phobias and his solitude to know that there wasn’t anything that could change him now. Wishing it were otherwise was a waste of time.
He stood where he could see both doors and tugged them open. The doorway on his left showed a midafternoon parade at the Carnevale di Venezia, and he recognized the mask he’d worn on that mission, when they’d chased an assassin through the crowd and caught him before he could reach his target, an act of cunning that had won them (secret, of course) commendations from the prime ministers of five different countries. The doorway on his right revealed a night scene, the mostly-deserted street outside a thirty-story Melbourne office building where they’d once been sent on an information-gathering mission that had failed badly and nearly cost Alastair his life.
Of all the things Alastair had expected, a choice hadn’t been among them.
The Carvenale had been a triumph, no question, and Alastair couldn’t deny that would be his preference for re-living: racing through the streets in full plague doctor costume, keeping constant mental contact with Babá, outwitting one of the most cunning men in the world before innocent lives were lost. Honestly, there were times he wished every mission could be as challenging and exciting as that.
But whatever was happening inside Babá’s mind, it was bad, and he wasn’t going to get there following a trail of happy breadcrumbs. With a heavy heart, he pushed the left door closed and stood before the right. Alastair didn’t see himself in the still frame before him, but he remembered the location well, and could feel the misery of the experience vibrating from well beyond the threshold. Before he could think better of it, he threw himself without hesitation through the door.
He’s falling, plunging straight toward the ground, his head throbbing from a giant bleeding gash across his forehead, unable to stop thinking about the pain long enough to think about anything else, and it’s only as he passes the twentieth story on his way to the nineteenth that he remembers exactly why he hates remembering Australia.
At the same time, however, he’s aware of the ground beneath him — and not just of how fast it’s coming toward him, but what the world looks like at that level, and what it feels like to receive the sudden slap of a deep, visceral sense of catastrope. Babá turns, a wash of horror sweeping over him as he first sees the falling man, then recognizes the flailing limbs of his partner. Agent Szilágyi, the mission commander, wants them all to maintain psychic radio silence, keeping their shields up in case enemy operatives were listening, and thus all Babá knows is that Alastair went up to the top floor and now seems to have been tossed off it, and that if he doesn’t do something, this will all end very badly.
Babá’s easily a hundred meters distant, well outside expected TK range even for small objects, much less large ones, much less large moving ones that are approacing very terminal velocity with only eight floors left to go. Fifty meters is the farthest seperation at which the Agency tests for ability, and even then they expect fully 93% of potential agents to fail at that distance; Babá was part of the minority that passed, and that had involved nothing more than pushing an empty cardboard box half a meter to the left. He’ll do the math later and write the awareness of the impossibility back on top of the memory, because he doesn’t think about it as it’s happening; he has no time.
It’s a one-in-a-million shot, which of course means that not only does Babá pull it off, he does so with style. Alastair doesn’t stop with a jerk so much as with a pillow, his descent slowing over the last five flights of his fall until he comes to a complete halt two feet from the ground. He struggles a little against the catch, still not quite able to believe he isn’t dead, then pivots himself forward until his feet touch the ground and he stands on his own shaky legs.
Niemand! someone shouts, and it’s Szilágyi; his ridiculous combat boots thunder against the ground as he races over, followed close on his heels by his own partner, an agent by the name of Mumtaz who has the distinction of beng the only active agent Alastair has ever met who’s actually smaller than Babá is. What the hell happened? Szilágyi frowns at the cut on his head, then nods to Mumtaz, the team’s most trained medic.
Alastair nudges her delicate hand away gently before she can examine his head, even though the blood has started to trickle into the corner of his eye and sting. There’s a dozen of them on the top level, he says, glancing up toward the balcony from whence he’d been thrown. They must have known we were coming.
Mumtaz starts to say something, but Alastair isn’t paying attention to either of the agents by him, or the fall that nearly killed him, or even his own aching head. What he sees is Babá, who in this memory sees him too, and he’s hit with such a wave of pure, undiluted relief that he almost can’t believe it’s not his own. Babá is racing toward him, speeding his feet along as fast as his powers will allow, fighting back tears as the adrenaline gives way to the cold knotty terror that Alastair might have died. He nearly has to use his telekinetic abilities a second time to stop himself from doing what he wants to more than anything in the world, which is flinging his arms around Alastair, burying his face in Alastair’s neck, clinging to the dark wool of his jacket, begging him: hold me, please, don’t let me go, don’t leave me.
He wants to so bad it nearly kills him, but instead, he digs his feet into the ground so they’re just out of arm’s reach of one another. Are you okay? he asks keeping his hands balled into fists by his sides, so tight they hurt; it’s a trick he’s learned from Alastair.
Back to the safehouse, Szilágyi orders, scratching at his bushy moustache; he taps his forehead and sends brief come back pulses to the other four agents in the building. We need to think this through, and you, he looks at Alastair, need to get that looked at.
I’ll be fine, Alastair protests, but he knows better than to argue with a mission leader. The pain in his head has caught up with him, and he’s glad that the blood gives his eyes an excuse to water.
Babá clears his throat. Here, he says, and he produces a handkerchief from his back pocket, floating it the last few feet beween them; he knows it’s clean, but doubts it’s up to Alastair’s standards of clean, and thus promises himself not to be offended if Alastair doesn’t take it.
But Alastair does, plucking it from the air and pressing it to his forehead. Thanks, he says, and then adds, nice catch, Sebastião.
You fall, I catch! chirps Babá, spreading a grin across his face so wide it hurts, so forced it doesn’t reach his eyes. The others have started on ahead, and Alastair turns to follow, indicating that Babá should follow — but Babá’s shaking so bad he can’t move, and he’s afraid he might throw up if he tries. There, on the street in the dead of night, he watches, helpless and mute, as Alastair walks away. Babá reaches out a hand as though to place it on Alastair’s shoulder, but the distance is too great already, and will always be too great, and as he resigns himself to feeling like this forever, Alastair steps into the car–
He came out the door into a long hallway, so long that he had to squint through his glasses to make out the single door on the far end. Something was more than distance was obscuring his vision, though; he took a deep breath, trying to center himself, and wound up coughing out smoke. The white plaster walls here were stained grey, damaged too long to have any hope of ever regaining their original state. The black clouds that billowed out from beneath the far door must have been the source, then, not only of the damage here, but of the burning smell that seemed to have permeated every part of Babá’s psyche.
He took off at a run toward it, ignoring the way it burned his lungs, not even stopping long enough to remind himself that it wasn’t real — because it was real, at least for Babá. Alastair considered for a moment that the weapon may have infected the memory, but when he got close enough to the door, he could see that the heavy mahogany slab was already swinging loose on busted hinges, and what looked like more than a dozen heavy padlocks and chains lay busted on the ground. Whatever lay behind this door had become a monster on its own long before today; the weapon had just let it out.
Alastair placed his fingers close to the splintered door frame and felt a crack that shocked his hand numb, and knew exactly what kind of memory was inside.
Psychic potential was a rare enough trait in individuals, and the Agency estimated that maybe a tenth of those with it would see full psychic powers activated in their lifetimes. The reason was simple: they had to be triggered. Trigger memories differed from psychic to psychic, but what unified them is that they were invariably traumatic. Some had happy endings, of course — he’d known one clerk at the Agency, a low-potential matronly woman from Cardiff, who’d mentioned in passing how she’d had her powers kick in as she’d kept her two-year-old son from being mauled by a feral dog pack — but by and large, individual psychics found their powers activated only in the face of agonizing loss and horror. Such was why not even the Agency’s most talented researchers had ever put forth a plan to actualize psychic potential: after all, who would volunteer for such a thing, who would be the one to construct a traumatic situation severe enough, and, worst of all, what would happen if it didn’t work the first time?
Alastair’s mother had called his own triggering event ‘The Accident’, even though there had been nothing accidental about it. He’d been ten years old, sitting outside with his class at recess, when a girl named Moira Baum had kissed him, without warning, on the mouth. He’d been so stunned he’d done nothing, and after she’d run off giggling — not with malice, but with delight, her first foray into the world of romance an apparent success — he’d gotten up with all the calm of pure shock and indicated to the teacher that he was going to the toilet. He’d stopped at the janitor’s closet between the bathrooms, though, and had found the bottle of bleach on the first shelf, the same brand his mother used for scouring his room when he couldn’t sleep for fear of contamination; he’d poured it over his mouth, then inside his mouth, then swallowed whole mouthfuls of it in a desperate attempt to make himself clean again. He didn’t remember much about what came next, only the violent shocks through his body, first from his stomach and then from his brain, and the sound it made when every piece of glass in the school shattered in unison. It had also been the first and the last time someone had kissed him.
Whatever had been locked behind the door, that was Babá’s trigger, and Alastair understood for the first time the ‘unable to administer’ note on Babá’s potential report. However, this made things difficult: Alastair hadn’t met Babá until a full two years after his abilities had awakened, which meant that his usual technique of riding his own projection through Babá’s memories was no longer useful. He’d have to think of something different.
The door, of its own volition, swung off its hinges and fell to the ground with a clatter, and Alastair felt a blast of heat hit his face. He saw a city street, cobbled and lined with houses, and in the distance a great pillar of black smoke belched into the air.
There wasn’t time to consider any more than this. He didn’t know how long he could hold up the deception, but he hoped — prayed, even — it would be enough to get him out the other side. He put his fingers close to the frame again, concentrating not on the scene, but on Babá himself, trying to get the rhythm of his feelings and emotions enough that he might pass unnoticed just long enough. He reached for that familiar mind, looking for his partner, and pulled himself through.
It’s burning, it’s all burning, and he should be burning with it, and he’s not, and he’s going to go to Hell for it.
Someone shouts, the seminary is on fire! and he sprints out of the club without a moment’s hesitation, locked in the grip of the purest panic he’s ever known. He’s gone out to dance, snuck out even though it’s against the rules, because that’s all he does — he dances, and he talks, and he laughs, and he feels alive. He’s accepted that his family has sent him to the seminary to become a priest and tame his wild ways (even though they don’t harm anyone and actually help many, but they only shake their heads when he tries to say so), and he’s actually looking forward to becoming a priest and doing God’s work, but priests don’t dance, they barely touch, and so he slips out every so often instead of keeping the night vigil, not because he wants to sin, but so he can remember what it is not to be alone.
His sandaled feet hit hard against the ground, and the sharp rocks cut through the thin soles to his flesh, but he can’t think about that pain; he’s running so hard he can barely breathe, and he gasps for air, wheezing as his lungs start to take in the far edge of the smoke. As he gets closer, he sees a crowd has started to gather, mostly people from nearby houses, people he knows, parisoners he’s seen at mass and just walking around the town. What he doesn’t see, though, is anyone from the seminary.
The town has a fire brigade with one rickety engine, a hand-me-down from one of the bigger cities, and the firemen are bustling around it, trying to make its ancient mechanisms work. He tries to sprint past them, and one of them, a big man about his father’s age, grabs him in his arms and lifts him effortlessly off the ground. You can’t go in there! he shouts, as though any prohibition against running a burning building should be obvious.
They’re my friends! Babá shouts, kicking and flailing, for all the good it does; being held by this man is not unlike being caught in a tree. I’ve got to get them out!
What, are you crazy? The firefighter shoves Babá backward, toward the crowd that has gathered to watch and fret, keeping a safe distance from the fire. The building is small, and every window pours forth smoke and flame; the chapel is still only half-scorched, while the dormitory burns so high that it must be the source of the fire. No doubt its first flicker was from a little thing, some votive burned down into the wood beneath, some taper left too close to a curtain, maybe even a lantern knocked over during some priest’s late-night check of the quiet halls.
Maybe they’ve all gone out the back, he thinks, and he races away from the fire engine, around the side of the dormitory, hoping that he’s right, that the shortest exits turn out to be to the grounds away from the main road, that everyone is huddled there but fine. He has to believe it’s true because the other options are unthinkable, and he keeps believing it right up to the point where he rounds the corner and sees nothing there but fire. He looks up, scanning the windows for anything that isn’t the orange monster — and his heart falls into his stomach as he seees movement in the window of his own room, the coughing, soot-covered face of his roommate, Rafael.
(He was also feeling the beginnings of electric crackling along his bones, something Alastair could recognize, but that Babá could not have understood at the time: a current, conducted by adrenaline, feeling the urgency and starting to respond.)
Fael! he screams, and the nickname strips his soot-scorched throat raw. He waves his hands, trying to get Rafael’s attention, but the fire roars like the ocean, and no matter how loud he screams, he can’t make himself heard. Fael! Babá can see him so clearly there, slumped against the wooden window frame three flights up as thick black smoke pours out from behind him. They’re brothers from different mothers, everyone teases them, and Babá, one of eight children, gladly admits that Fael looks more like him than any of his blood siblings do. Babá loves him, too, in a way he wants to believe is pure and chaste, though some nights he dreams of slipping into Fael’s bed and kissing all his laughter from his mouth, and though he’d never say anything about his unrealized plans, he believes deep down that Fael would kiss back. And now he’s dying, and Babá can’t even make himself heard to say anything.
There’s a crack, a great crashing sound as half the dormitory roof gives way, and Fael disappears from the window, slipping out of sight, and that’s it — Babá makes a run for the building, ignoring the shouts from the approaching firemen. The entrances to the living quarters are all engulfed in flames, but there’s still another way. Head down, arms up to block his face, he plows through the chapel’s side door, headed straight for the heart of the fire.
It’s either God’s providence or God’s punishment, and for the rest of his life he’ll never be certain which, but the moment he steps inside the stone chapel, the dormitory collapses.
He knows — he knows — that it’s only the sound of exhausted timber, grinding against itself all the way down, unable to bear its own weight anymore, much less the weight of the seventeen lives inside it. Knowing, however, doesn’t matter; he’ll wake up for years afterward remembering the sound as their dying shouts, crying mercy from anything and receiving none from anywhere. Sometimes he remembers joining them, shouting himself hoarse as he watches the fall through the chapel’s heat-broken windows. He staggers back against the altar, grabbing its stone top, shaking so hard he can no longer stand on his own — and something inside him gives way as easily as burnt wood. He feels a second collapse, but this one comes from inside him, and the shock wave radiates out from his body in a hurricane-like gale, ripping out of him with a pain he still remembers in excruciating detail. He falls to the ground himself, convulsing in agony and terror and helplessness.
It feels like a hundred years pass before his body remembers to breathe again, and when he gasps in his first lungful of air, the half-conscious rational portion of his brain is surprised at how clean it is. It’s only then that he notices: fire is gone.
They’ll call it a miracle, he’s certain, but he doesn’t stay around long enough to hear. Instead, he turns and runs. His memory of his exit is hazy; maybe he pushes aside the stone structure himself, or maybe he just slips through gaps already inflicted on the masonry, but he escapes out the side of the chapel closest to the seminary’s orchard. Unseen by anyone (except maybe God, if He’s still watching), Babá sprints as fast and as far as he can go, not knowing where he’s headed, but knowing too well what he’s leaving behind.
Memory begins to fragment and fade here, losing the coherent thread of the narrative in an adrenaline-fueled set of moments that all bleed one into the other. There’s a dim retrospective awareness that he’ll eventually collapse with exhaustion, be found by a sugar-cane merchant with his donkey cart, and beg a ride to the nearest anything that isn’t in the direction from whence he’s come. But that future seems distant enough to be impossible, and the present reality is overwhelming — his fear, his physical pain, his stomach-sick guilt over his disobedience and the disaster which followed in its wake. No matter how fast he runs, that will never let him escape.
Alastair stumbled forward as though thrown from a moving object, gasping for air; he coughed, and felt smoke grit against his lungs and throat, so present and disgusting that he felt inclined to vomit, and stopped himself only by reminding himself quite firmly that this was not real, any of it, and vomiting would be at best a symbolic act, and thus totally unnecessary. His projected body conceded he had a point, but was reluctant about it.
When he could look up, Alastair saw a burning chapel that was now very familiar to him, as he’d seen it only moments before through Babá’s eyes. The chapel in Babá’s memory had been damaged by fire in ways consistent with an actual fire’s progression, showing damage only where it touched the dormitory that had most likely been the source of the blaze; this one burned on all four sides, scorching but not consuming, a prison made of fire. Alastair turned behind him, but there was no door through which he could retrace his steps, only a wall of flame preventing any retreat.
That didn’t matter, though, because even if he could have gone back, he wouldn’t have wanted to: he’d found his destination.
At the other end of the small chapel stood an altar, dark wood with a white stone piece on top, and at the foot of the altar lay Babá. He was naked, and Alastair feared for a moment that he might be dead, except for how he was clutching himself tighter than even death would allow. He looked so small there, a wounded bird flown into a glass window and collapsed, stunned because it never saw the damage coming. Alastair stepped forward. “Sebastião,” he said, and his voice bounced off the high ceilings, “I’m here to bring you home with me.”
If anything, the little body in front of the altar grew smaller, tucking into itself, and Babá shook his head. Alastair took another step forward down the space between the pews, then another, careful of what traps he might spook on the way here. This place, though, gave off no impression of being external; in fact, for all his travels down through the man’s psyche, Alastair didn’t think he’d seen another place so purely Babá, so untouched by the weapon’s influence, and that broke his heart. So that was what the weapon did — it drove your inner self down inside its own fears, locking that away so it could wreak havoc unchecked everywhere else. It was brilliant, really, and Alastair wanted to kill anyone who’d had any part in making it.
“Sebastião,” he repeated, this time a little louder, and it worked — Babá didn’t look up, but he turned, a definite response to the sound. “It’s time to go. Come with me.” He cleared his throat. “Please.”
Babá shook his head, and Alastair felt like falling down and giving up right then and there. He’d been through so much and taken so many stupid risks, and now to get here and have to argue with Babá to save his own stupid self felt … exhausting, that was a polite word for it. Alastair sighed and balled his fists again, contemplating striking the hard wood of the pews to see if the pain would make him feel better about things. “Sebastião–”
“You keep calling me that,” said Babá, and his voice was a quiet whine, but it cut through all other sounds in the room, perhaps even in the universe. To Alastair’s ears, he had the same lyrical accent he always did, and despite linguistic differences, Alastair understood every word perfectly. “Why?”
Alastair stopped in his tracks, frozen. He cleared his throat. “…Because it’s your name,” he said, feeling lame even as the words came out of his mouth, remembering everything Madalena had said to him. He took a deep breath and tried again. “Because we’re partners. It’s,” and this sounded even worse than his initial rationale, “professional.”
Babá laughed, but it was a bitter, petulant sound. Alastair had never seen him like this — he was always so bright and optimistic, and even when he was scared, he never let his anger go to being childish. …But this wasn’t just Babá, it was the base of his personality, the childish part of him that formed first and grew with him but never quite grew up. Everyone had this kind of construct inside, Alastair knew, but never once, in all his years with the Agency, had he actually gone deep enough to meet one, not even his own. “Leave me alone,” Babá moaned, drawing back into his fetal curl. “I’ve been bad. Leave before it gets you too.”
“No!” Alastair cried, so sharp and automatic that his voice made Babá cringe, and he was immediately sorry. “No, you’ve been good. You’ve been very good. You’re … my partner and my friend, and a very good agent, and you’ve helped a lot of people and saved a lot of people, and,” he became aware he was babbling, and scrambled for something that would make his case more clearly, “you saved my life! Off the building, if you hadn’t caught me, I wouldn’t be here.”
That made Babá look up at him, really look this time, and Alastair could feel the fire lessen its intensity and slow its progress, because it was encroaching, Alastair could see that now, the walls were closing in on them and they had not much time left — and then Babá shut himself in again, and the fire raged. “You don’t want me,” he shook his head, and before Alastair could say that of course he wanted Babá to be his partner, Babá added, “not like I want you.”
If Alastair’s projection had been detailed enough to include a heart, it might have plunged into his stomach. “I….” He took a deep breath, steadying himself against the sick ache he felt bubbling up inside of himself. He couldn’t claim he didn’t know how Babá wanted him, because by now, even a completely brainless stone would have found all the evidence overwhelming — and the last thing he wanted to do was admit that he didn’t know how he wanted Babá, because regardless of how true it was, it came off sounding like an admission that Babá was right. Instead, he came close to Babá until he was just out of arm’s reach and knelt until Babá was on his eye level. “I do,” he said, trying to make his statement sound as true as it was.
Babá scoffed. “Liar,” he said, and he covered his face with both arms.
“It’s true.” Alastair leaned forward, bracing himself on his closed fists. “I swear, Babá, I swear it’s true.”
The sound of his name got Babá’s attention, and he peeked out at Alastair again; his eyes were red-rimmed, and his cheeks were shiny and wet. He was naked, too, something that hadn’t entirely escaped Alastair’s notice earlier, but which became an even more critical factor at this distance; his sun-browned skin glowed orange with the light of the fire. “…Look at you,” said Alastair, and this violated every sense of propriety and reserve he had, but now this had long ago ceased to be the time to let his own problems get in the way. “You’re beautiful. You’re … you’re so beautiful, sometimes I can’t stop looking at you.”
“Then why don’t you ever touch me?” Babá asked, reaching out his hand to Alastair like he had that night by the building — and Alastair, to his incredible shame, flinched. “See?” Babá withdrew again, pulling away so far that his back came to rest against the altar. “I’ve been bad. And the fire has come back for me.”
Alastair put his hand over his mouth and took a deep, difficult breath through it. All around him, he could hear the crackle of the fire as it closed in, and had the clear, real thought that they would both die in here. Babá said he wanted Alastair to leave, but at the same time was holding on to him with such force that even if Alastair had wanted to escape, it would have been impossible; the weapon had done its damage, and all of Alastair’s bridges had literally been burned behind him. Even if everyone inside the Agency combined their efforts and tried to pull him out, they would get nothing back. Babá’s brain would stop functioning eventually, there in that hospital bed, and his own body would just … topple over, absent anything left to tell his heart to beat or his lungs to breathe. The doctors would be left with a pair of empty shells, burnt out from the inside, firebombed buildings where the roof still held but nothing was left inside.
Babá at least had an excuse; he’d been attacked, and could no longer control his own mind. Alastair was just a coward, still the little boy who’d nearly succeeded in killing himself because he didn’t know how else to deal with his brain’s lies, who’d never tried to fix anything he could run away from, who’d spent five years in love to the point of agony with someone who could never really love him back because he was too pathetic to deserve love in return–
“No,” said Alastair, spitting the word in defiance of his own fear. “I won’t let it have you.” He looked Babá in the eye and said, with all the conviction in the world: “You’re mine.”
If he’d had longer to plan the logistics of it, the move might not have come off quite as awkward as it did, but there was no time. Alastair rocked back on his heels and pushed himself to his feet, as if to run away — and then ran straight to Babá, slipping one arm around his shoulders and another beneath his knees, and sweeping him off the ground, into his arms. Babá strugged for only a second, then threw his arms around Alastair’s neck, burying his face against Alastair’s shoulder and sobbing.
Holding as tight as he could to his partner’s impossibly light body, Alastair turned to the fire and stared it down. His own initial proficiency potential for pyrokinesis had only been in the twelfth percentile, and though age and practice had both contributed to his current skill level, even on his best days, he was barely average at psychic thermal manipulation — but the fire didn’t know that. What the fire knew was what he wanted it to know: that he was furious, and that if it wanted Babá, it would have to go through him first. The comfort Babá felt in Alastair’s arms shook the weapon’s hold on his brain, just for an instant, but instants were all Alastair had ever needed. In that gap, he sent out a mighty shock wave with his mind, hard enough to rattle the mental foundations of the chapel, more than hard enough to put out the fire.
The silence that followed rang in his ears, but the air tasted cold and clear, a sharp contrast that he knew from Babá’s own memory. Alastair turned his head and buried his face in Babá’s curls, which smelled not of smoke, but of sunshine, the way Alastair had always imaged he’d smell. “Shh,” he whispered, “I’ve got you. You’re safe. I’ll keep you safe.”
Babá lifted his face enough that Alastair could feel Babá’s lips brush his bare throat, and he was shocked that what he felt was not disgust, but desire. “Stay with me,” he pleaded. “Right here, just like this.”
This, admittedly, had not been a contingency for which Alastair had prepared. “But … we’ve got to go back.” He stroked Babá’s shoulder as much as their position would allow.
Babá shook his head. “I just want to stay in your arms. That’s all I want. I’ve waited so long, Ali, I can’t be alone again.”
“You won’t be!” Alastair hugged him close. “There are so many people out there, and they’re all waiting for you. They’re all worried about you. That’s why they sent me to come get you, so I could bring you back.”
“You’re the only one that matters,” said Babá, and he kissed Alastair’s throat. “You’re the only one that I want.”
“You have me.” Alastair swallowed. “Here and there. I’m yours.”
“It’s not enough.” Babá shook his head again, and wrapped himself so tightly around Alastair’s neck that Alastair was grateful he didn’t actually have to breathe here, because he was certain this would make it difficult. Babá was so small and fragile, but at the same time so powerful just beneath the surface. “I want to stay with you.”
At first, he was certain he was imagining things, but Alastair smelled the air again, and there it was, distant but faint: the smell of smoke, not lingering but returning. “The fire,” he said, looking at the black-burnt walls of the church; he’d managed to drive it away for a time, but he hadn’t succeeded in the more difficult task of getting Babá to send it away, and now, like a cancer that hadn’t been cut out all the way, it threatened relapse. “It’s coming back.”
“It will take us both.” Babá sighed, sounding like he was making an effort to be resigned to his fate, but his voice still shook. “It comes back every time. I … can’t stop it.”
“Yes, you can.” Alastair extracted himself from Babá’s embrace enough so that he could see Babá’s face; he managed still to look beautiful even when he was crying, and Alastair didn’t think that was wholly an invention of Babá’s brain. “Come back out. Come out with me. We’re not safe in here, so please, follow me out.”
Babá’s lower lip trembled, and he caught it between his teeth; he looked so young there, innocent and frightened, and it was all Alastair could do to keep from telling him yes, they could stay here forever, anything Babá wanted, Alastair would never say no again. “You….” The word died in Babá’s throat, and he hid his face against Alastair’s neck again. “You won’t even touch me there.”
Alastair pressed his face into Babá’s hair again, choking back a sob of his own, the closest he’d come to crying in as long as he could remember. “That’s not because of you,” he promised, knowing how pathetic it sounded.
One of Babá’s hands tightened in Alastair’s shirt. “You don’t love me,” he whispered, the words barely a whimper.
“I do.” Alastair closed his eyes. “I swear to you, I do.”
“Then show me,” said Babá, and he turned his face toward Alastair’s.
The demand sent Alastair’s brain into a panic, every dark anxiety bubbling up and reminding him how dangerous touch was, how contaminative, how disgusting, how it had hurt him before, how it would probably hurt him again — and standing there, holding Babá in his arms, Alastair was for the first time in his life strong enough to tell all the monsters in his brain to go to hell. Using a tiny psychic nudge to lift Babá upward, Alastair turned and put Babá down on the altar, which seemed a little sacrilegious, but was at least better than the floor. Babá didn’t protest, either, just held on, waiting for Alastair to prove his claims, and Alastair took a deep breath before pressing their mouths together.
He had intended to be gentle about it, a chaste kiss like the ones that woke up the cartoon fairytale princesses, but Babá parted his lips and thrust his tongue into Alastair’s mouth, and grabbed both sides of Alastair’s head to make sure he didn’t pull away. Babá in the waking world would never have been this forceful, Alastair knew, but this was the core of Babá’s desire, the pure and perfect center of I want, and would not be placated with halfway. Thus, Alastair climbed atop the stone altar with him, stretching their bodies in the same direction until his lay atop Babá’s smaller frame, and he could feel Babá’s bare toes kick playfully about his mid-calves.
The very act of kissing seemed strange to him, mostly because he found he liked it, which made little sense, given his previous disaster; the brain could be inventive, but didn’t tend to replicate accurately anything except that which it had already experienced. (For instance, he’d been shot inside psychic projections multiple times before he actually took a bullet in the real world, and had been most distressed to learn that his brain had been underestimating the sensation by a serious degree.) But Babá had the experience, Alastair realized as he sucked at Babá’s lower lip, and he was close enough to the center of Babá’s psyche that experiences could transfer easily. Every time his anxieties objected, they were overridden by Babá’s need, which became his own need, which led him to run his hands through Babá’s soft curls and kiss his mouth again and again.
“Yes, please,” Babá begged him, and he took his nimble legs and wrapped them around Alastair’s waist, pulling their bodies close enough that Alastair could feel Babá’s cock push against his belly. He’d seen Babá at the Agency’s gym pool before, wearing only his giant smile and his tiny swimsuit, and thus had come to this encounter with some idea of what Babá was packing beneath his clothes — but to feel it, present and hard, and to know it was hard for him … well, that was overwhelming. “I want your hands on me.” Babá leaned his head back, exposing his throat, and Alastair knew to kiss it, to suck little red marks into the skin, smiling as Babá laughed and moaned in his arms. Bracing himself on one arm, Alastair took his other hand and explored Babá’s sleek, muscled body, feeling how amazing and warm he was. Everything about him was made of sunshine, warm and light and good and clean, and Alastair wanted all of it.
His fingers traced the lines of Babá’s chest, learning with his fingers the contours his eyes had memorized, finally getting his hands on something he had suspected would never be his. But now Babá was, and he wanted more, and every time Alastair touched him, Babá made a noise of encouragement, sometimes words, sometimes just gasps. Alastair’s fingers reached the flat plane of skin just below Babá’s navel and hesitated, and Babá grabbed his hair and pulled him into another kiss. “Touch me,” he whispered into Alastair’s mouth, and he leaned his hips forward so the damp head of his cock nudged against Alastair’s hand. An invitation like that was impossible to refuse; Alastair circled his fingers around Babá’s cock, amazed at how different it felt from his own, how thick and hot and so hard, all for him. “Yes, yes,” Babá nodded, letting his head fall back against the altar and exposing his throat again, “I need you to touch me.”
Alastair didn’t need more encouragement than that. He began to stroke Babá with no tease or hesitation, feeling the strength of Babá’s need and responding in kind. Babá gasped and thrust his hips into Alastair’s hand, and Alastair’s mind began to fill with all sorts of thoughts he knew hadn’t originated from his own imagination: he wanted to take Babá’s cock in his mouth and suck him, learning the taste of his skin and come; he wanted to throw Babá’s legs over his shoulders and thrust his cock inside (though he couldn’t quite think about the specifics there, his brain wasn’t ready for that yet) until they both came; he wanted to roll onto his back and let Babá ride him, grinning down at him, his fingertips in Alastair’s mouth as they fucked (and that was a new concept to Alastair’s brain, not just sex but fucking) one another to exhaustion. Babá was amazing at mental projection, as the flood of images that filled his brain would attest, and where Alastair might have felt awkward before trying to envision these fantasties, now they were all he wanted. “Yes,” Alastair nodded, “I want it, I want you–”
That was apparently all it took — Babá came then, into Alastair’s hand, shuddering and crying out wordlessly, beautiful and perfect and wholly, finally Alastair’s. At last, his hips relaxed again, and he wrapped his body around Alastair’s once more. “Please, Ali,” he whispered, sucking on Alastair’s earlobe, “stay here with me, make love to me….”
Any other man in the universe would probably have said yes, and been correct to do so, but Agent Alastair Niemand shook his head and pulled back. “I can’t.” He pulled his hips back, because the contact was making it difficult to remember his mission, and he was harder than he’d been in his entire life. “I … don’t know how it feels. I can guess, and I can let you share, but I don’t know. I’ve never … before.”
Babá’s eyes went a little wide, and he touched Alastair’s cheek with his fingertips. “Never?” he asked, and the question was kind, not cruel.
“Never.” Alastair shook his head. “Please, Seb– Babá, I want your skin. I want you to teach me how. But….” He looked away to the unseen outer world. “I’m out there. Come back with me.”
“And you’ll,” Babá swallowed, and Alastair could read in his expression as logic won the argument, “be with me there?”
“Come teach me how to make love to you,” said Alastair, and he pressed one more light kiss to Babá’s lips before reaching down and taking Babá’s hand in his own. Babá shut his eyes and nodded, and Alastair pushed, the way a diver might shoot up from the ocean floor, rocketing up through fluid, carried by inertia and his own buoyancy ever upward, feeling Babá’s hand clamped like a vise to his as he tore his way toward the surface–
What happened next was a nightmare of cold, bright noise, and Alastair had only the faintest awareness of toppling back off his stool, being caught in the arms of someone who wasn’t Babá as the hospital room exploded into sound and activity. Like that diver come up from too deep too fast, he’d given himself the bends, and he thrashed about even as he felt a cold needle stab into the bare side of his throat. His skin felt raw, and Alastair tried to grab at anything he could, just to get someone to tell him if Babá was all right; he kept reaching as they dragged him out the door onto a waiting gurney, where he called Babá’s name again and again until the sedative kicked in and he blacked out.
It wasn’t until he heard his name called that he realized he’d fallen asleep in the chair. Alastair blinked away drowsiness, and looked up to see a pair of bright brown eyes and an equally bright smile turned toward him. “…Good morning,” he said, standing and straightening his clothes, trying to look like he hadn’t spent the past three days in that same suit, in that same place. The doctors had finally allowed him to leave his hospital room on condition that he didn’t stray from the medical ward, and he’d been true to that promise. “How are you feeling?”
Babá smiled and sat up a little, raking his fingers through his wild hair. “How long since…?”
“A week.” Alastair pulled his stool closer to the bed and sat on it, still teetering a little. Physically, he was great, but his mind hadn’t quite yet re-adjusted to the confines of reality, and thus he still had to proceed anywhere with caution. “I should tell someone, Dr. Baker in particular will–”
“No, wait.” Babá reached for Alastair’s hand, then hesitated — then visibly screwed up his nerve and took it anyway, grabbing Alastair’s leather-covered fingers with his own. “I … remember.”
Alastair swallowed, fighting back the lump that had suddenly calcified in his throat. “I wasn’t sure you would,” he said, letting his gaze drop. He also hadn’t been sure Babá would ever wake up again, period, but that ghost had been banished with the sound of Alastair’s name — so perhaps other impossible things could be true, too.
Babá nodded, brushing the back of Alastair’s hand with his thumb. “You do not have to … what you promised.” He smiled, and that expression might have fooled the rest of the world, but Alastair knew better now. “I know my mind, I made you promise things to me, but … when you saved me when I was….” Babá closed his eyes and shook his head, the way he did when he ran out of ways to make himself understood in English. “You are my friend and my partner, and it is enough that you are, so you should not … anything you would not want….” His voice trailed off, and he closed his eyes.
It would be so easy, Alastair knew, to take the opportunity to go back to the way things had been before. They were still an amazing team, effective and strong, and Alastair would never have to worry about disappointing Babá when he couldn’t control his own anxieties, and Babá could go off and find someone or a hundred someones to be with instead, lovers who weren’t afraid of the world, and they could still love one another from a distance, just as they always had, and just as it had always been, it would have to be enough.
Instead, Alastair withdrew his hand from Babá’s and reached for the cuffs of his gloves. He tugged at their fingertips, then pulled them off his pale, bare hands, setting them aside on the table by the bed. That done, though his his heart fluttered in his chest and every anxiety that had ever taken up residence in his head screamed DON’T!, he reached again for Babá and twined their fingers together in the same way Alastair had held him when they’d escaped together. “…I may be hard to teach,” he admitted, swallowing his fear without quite banishing it, “but I want to learn.”
Babá looked at him for a moment in awe, his eyes welling with tears — and then he grinned, like the sun breaking over the edge of the eastern horizon, warm and new. “I will be a very patient teacher, my love,” said Babá, and as he gripped Alastair’s bare hands tight, Alastair found he never wanted to let go again.